Tag Archives: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Fictions and Foreigners: Borges and Alastair Reid

19 Aug

borges in library

The first story I read by Borges, at the age of eighteen, was Tlön, Uqbar, Tertius Orbis. Although the name would have meant nothing to me at the time, the translation was by Alastair Reid. Forty years later, I get to meet the man, now 88 years of age, a little frayed around the edges, but alert and bright eyed as a moorland bird. He lives in New York but spends part of every summer in the Dumfries and Galloway region where he was born and raised. I have been advised that Alastair would prove an invaluable repository of experiences and anecdotes for my researches into Latin American literature, concerning, among others, Borges, Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez, all of whom he knew well – Borges, best of all. And so it was that one bright July morning I set out with my friend Tom Pow across the Dumfries countryside towards our rendezvous.

I have yet to transcribe the recording, but two things stood out in our conversation. Neither of them will be surprising to those who are familiar with the work of Borges, but they are fascinating to me nonetheless.

Alastair Reid

Alastair Reid, July 2014.

Translating Borges was, according to Alastair Reid, at times like re-translating something that had originally been written in English, and subsequently translated into Spanish. This, apparently, was due to Borges’ own familiarity and long use of the English language (he had an English grandmother, was brought up bilingual, and learned to read in English at an early age). The task of the translator, then, felt like rendering the story back into its original language, which Alastair described as a somewhat unsettling or daunting experience, and quite unlike translating other Spanish language writers.

The other thing that stood out for me in our talk was Alastair’s insistence that for Borges everything was a ficción, a fiction. As he puts it in his essay ‘Fictions’ (in the wonderful collection Outside In): ‘Borges referred to all his writings – essays, stories, poems, reviews – as fictions. He never propounded any particular theory of fictions, yet it is the key to his particular lucid, keen, and ironic view of existence.’ I was dimly aware of this, but not to the extent that this infiltrated his approach to literature and the world. In his essay, Alastair Reid elaborates:

A fiction is any construct of language – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality.

Reality, that which is beyond language, functions by mainly indecipherable laws, which we do not understand, and over which we have limited control. To give some form to reality, we bring into being a variety of fictions.

A fiction, it is understood, can never be true, since the nature of language is utterly different from the nature of reality.

And so on.

Alastair Reid’s essays contain so many observations and aperçus about the writers he has worked with (the 1976 essay ‘Basilisk’s Eggs’ is another gem) it would do them little justice to summarize. And that is only half the story: some of Reid’s most impressive writing concerns his own reflections on travel and identity: on the one side his Scottish beginnings, or ‘roots’ (a word he treats with caution), on the other the years of wandering. Perhaps my favourite is ‘Notes on being a Foreigner’ in which the author makes astute and (to my mind) accurate observations on that state or condition – one that a person is probably born to – as opposed to, say, a tourist or an expatriate.

‘Tourists are to foreigners as occasional tipplers are to alcoholics – they take strangeness and alienation in small, exciting doses, and besides, they are well fortified against loneliness . . .

. . . An expatriate shifts uncomfortably, because he still retains, at the back of his mind, the awareness that he has a true country, more real to him than any other he happens to have selected. Thus he is only at ease with other expatriates . . .

. . . The foreigner’s involvement is with where he is. He has no other home. There is no secret landscape claiming him, no roots tugging at him. He is, if you like, properly lost, and so in a position to rediscover the world, form outside in.’

As for being ‘properly lost’ – this is a theme to be continued ( if I make it back to Wales).

A Journey into Memory

29 Jun

 

Bouillon: Panorama

Bouillon: Panorama

When I remember things from childhood or early adulthood, it often feels as though I am a passive subject, a receptacle or vessel, and the process of remembering becomes one in which memory is seeking me out, digging its way into my sense-making apparatus, rather than there being any sort of ‘I’ trying to make sense of the things remembered.

I am all too aware that as far as memories are concerned, it is the act of construction (more accurately reconstruction) that matters, of making the bits fit our self-narrativisation. In other words, as Gabriel García Márquez put it: ‘Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.’

Other People's CountriesIn his memoir, Other People’s Countries (subtitled A Journey into Memory), Patrick McGuinness asks fascinating questions about the way that identity is rooted in memory, more specifically in the way that we remember. “Trying to remember is itself a shock, a kind of detonation in the shadows, like dropping a stone into silt at the bottom of a pond: the water that had seemed clear is now turbid (that’s the first time I’ve ever used that word) and enswirled.” On reading this passage, which comes on Page 7 of the book, I found it noteworthy that McGuinness comments on the fact that he has not used the word ‘turbid’ before, which immediately casts suspicion on the observation, because one wonders whether, by commenting on memory’s cloudiness and turbidity, he has merely dislodged an existing memory, and is therefore, perhaps, not ‘using the word for the first time’ at all. And how telling that his use of the word ‘turbid’, and his comment on that usage, should immediately be followed by a neologism, ‘enswirled’.

These are nice illustrations of the way that language, our use of it, and its use of us, can be an element in the process of remembering. I am thinking in particular of those laden words which, when they crop up, immediately bring with them a sequence of memories and associations. I remember reading somewhere that our memory of language is the best reason why one should not translate into a language that is not our mother tongue. Words carry their own baggage with them: when you hear certain words, they spark off a whole sequence of associative meanings and memories, stretching back to childhood, that would simply not be available to an individual who has learned a language as an adult.

Childhood is the source of many of these word-memories. Like smells or taste (Proust’s oft-cited madeleine), words, long forgotten or unused, are capable of eliciting entire submerged worlds. But is it the memory of the word itself that achieves this, or the memory of a memory? As McGuinness speculates:

‘And as with so much of that childhood, I seem to remember not the things themselves but the memories of the things, as if the present I experienced them in was already slowing up and treacling over, fixing itself in a sepia wash.’

There are so many good things in this book, things that make you reach for a pencil, or else just stop in your tracks and reflect about the words you have just read. You can dip in, pick a page at random, and come out with some crystallized memory, or some jewel of detailed observation.

Other People’s Countries is, on one level, about a house in Bouillon, in the Ardennes region of Belgium. The house belonged to McGuinness’ family (his mother was Belgian) and was the author’s own childhood home. The book is divided into many short chapters: in this way they resemble the rooms of a large house, perhaps Quintilian’s House of Memory. I’ll conclude with one of my favourite chapters, titled ‘Keys’, which follows in its entirety:

‘Watching an old police procedural, probably a Maigret, sometime in the early eighties while convalescing from glandular fever (an illness I experienced more as convalescence than as actual illness: I felt as if I was simply recovering from something, rather than actually having the something to recover from in the first place), it came to me: a thief pushing a key into putty so that it’s outline would be caught in the relief and he could copy it, then burgle the house.

That was memory, I realised: a putty with which you make another key, which would open the same door, but never quite as well. In no time, you’d be burgling your own past with the slightly off-key key that always got you in though there was less and less to take.’

 

 

 

 

Of Dogs and Death

26 Apr

 

Dogs (such as this one, in the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) guided their people to the next world in Aztec culture.

Dogs (such as this one, in the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) guided their people to the next world in Aztec culture.

 

I wrote once before about Juan Rulfo and his novel Pedro Paramo, which has unparalleled status in Mexican literature and was a major influence on the young Gabriel García Márquez on his arrival in Mexico City in 1961.

I recently spent an evening reading Juan Rulfo’s short stories El llano en llama (translated into English both as The Plain in Flames and The Burning Plain). The stories were written in the long wake of the Mexican revolution, which coincided with Rulfo’s own childhood in an orphanage in Jalisco where, he said later, he often saw corpses hanging from posts, and that he spent all his time reading, “because you couldn’t go out for fear of getting shot.” These stories lead the reader into a space of silence and mystery, where reality breaks down and we enter a world that might be the antechamber to the afterlife, if the afterlife you have in mind is bleak, featureless, devoid of anything that could pass as life at all. But there are ghosts, at least.

The rhythms of Rulfo’s prose remind me of what Octavio Paz wrote about his archetypal Mexican: “his language is full of reticences, of metaphors and allusions, of unfinished phrases, while his silence is full of tints, folds, thunderheads, sudden rainbows, indecipherable threats . . .” There are threats aplenty, but they are unformed, vaguely defined and usually at some distance from the place of narration – yet always getting closer. Events take place in a half-light, as characters stumble towards yet another failure, or else death.

In the first story in Rulfo’s collection, ‘They have given us land’, a group of four landless men trudge across an arid plain. They have been promised land by some government official, but the ground beneath them is dry, stony, utterly unsuitable for planting anything that might grow. There had been more than twenty in their group, and they had horses and rifles, but now there are only four, and they have nothing, apart from a hen, which one of them keeps hidden inside his coat. “After walking for so many hours without coming across even the shadow of a tree, even the seed of a tree, nor the root of anything, we heard the barking of dogs.”

In another story ‘Don’t you hear the dogs barking’, a man carries his adult son on his back to try and find a doctor in the town of Tonaya. The younger man is wounded. It is night-time and the old man cannot see where he is going. As the pair draw near to the town we learn through the father’s faltering monologue that his son is a thief and a murderer, and he is only carrying him out of respect for the boy’s dead mother.

In these two stories, the barking of dogs indicates the existence, if not of hope precisely, then of some form of life, of human dwellings at the very least. But perhaps that is a false reading. In Mesoamerican cultures dogs were considered to have the powers to guide the dead to a new life after death, which explains why dogs have frequently been found buried with people in pre-Columbian sites.

And of course, at the end of Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece, Under the Volcano, a dead dog is thrown down the ravine after the dead body of the unfortunate consul.

To come full circle, I discovered today that Rulfo had a bit-part in a Spanish film based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez. The film is called En este pueblo no hay ladrones (In this town there are no thieves), and is exceptional in that the cast is made up of notable writers, visual artists and film directors, including Luis Buñuel (clearly relishing his performance as the town priest), Leonora Carrington, Arturo Ripstein, Alfonso Arao, Abel Quezada, and Gabriel García Márquez himself.

 

Juan Rulfo (left) and Abel Quezada having a beer, in a scene from ‘En este pueblo no hay ladrones’ based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez.

Juan Rulfo (left) and Abel Quezada having a beer, in a scene from ‘En este pueblo no hay ladrones’ based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Masks and Death

24 Apr

day-of-the-dead-masks

 

When travelling, how do we begin to learn when someone is wearing a mask, with intent to deceive, given that we all wear masks much of the time?

We all know, as Hamlet says, that ‘one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’, and so I am thinking about how one goes about making judgements in another culture with people whose ideas about what qualifies as ‘sincerity’ is, perhaps, at a remove from one’s own culturally engendered version. And how, I wonder, do ‘I’ appear, the person who passes as myself (my own current person impersonator) with my own pretensions at ‘sincerity’, when for all my interlocutor knows, I am wearing a mask too, perhaps one more efficacious in design than his or her own.

These things trouble me. Should they? And how much does any of this matter, if, as Javier Marías reminds us in his novel The Infatuations (Los Enamoramientos), we are all novice ghosts: ‘whatever we do, we’ll only be waiting, like dead men on leave, as someone once said’.

A mask conceals, but to wear death on the outside conceals nothing, nada: it only reveals what we wear on the inside, what we carry inside us – our own eventual death – because we are ‘dead men on leave’ and one cannot conceal what can never be erased. So the mask of death, the grinning skull, is a double bluff, it is a way of anticipating our status as fragile ghosts, a way perhaps of trying to con or cheat or temporarily delay Death into thinking we are already dead, so he cannot choose us, he needn’t waste his time with us. This is not the same as the rather simplistic explanation I have read in tourist guides, namely that Mexicans like to display images of death and the skull in order to familiarise and trivialise it, to make it commonplace, to deny it real significance by flaunting it through macabre displays, even to the extent of eating chocolate skulls and skeletons. That, surely, would only constitute a bluff (a single bluff). And Death would not be fooled by that, surely?

How does a people – according to Claudio Lomnitz in his extraordinary book, Death and the Idea of Mexico – come to have death as its national icon? This question was addressed at length by Octavio Paz in his seminal study on the Mexican character, or what I am coming to think of as Mexicality, which manages to carry an almost-reference to mescal, the national liquor (usurped for many years by the Jalisco version, tequila, but making a fierce comeback among the middle classes, who previously eschewed it as a poor man’s drink). It is a view corroborated in Mexican culture by the prevalence of further imagery of death: not just in the ‘national icon’, as Lomnitz would have it, but in the extraordinarily graphic pictures (which would never be publishable in a UK newspaper) that accompany headlines of the latest narco-murder, and which, significantly, also accompany the paraphernalia of Christian death – exemplified by Christ’s death on the cross – here represented in a crucifixion scene I photographed yesterday in a Coyoacán church.

A bloodied Christ, with real hair.

None of this will be new to anyone who knows anything at all about Mexico, but for me the whole symbology of death, celebrated so vividly in fiestas such as the Day of the Dead – well, all fiestas in fact, as the essence of a fiesta is to defy death, to celebrate a momentary explosion in time, thereby provoking an attraction of opposites: the fiesta beckons death by celebrating life with fanatical and joyous hubris – is a topic definitively at odds with our Western denial of death, our sterilising and alienating distancing of everyday life from any possible contact with the unspeakable void that death represents.  But these are only preliminary thoughts on the topic, to which I may one day return.

At the Festival of the Book and the Rose, which I attended yesterday, as a guest of the Periódico de Poesía, the celebrations were adjusted at the last minute to make way for an homage to Gabriel García Márquez, pictured below, on a placard, flanked by yellow roses. I also learned that the University (UNAM) is home to 325,000 students: the same population, give or take a few dozen, as the city of Cardiff.

 

Gabo memorial

Gabo memorial

 

Poem stuck on wall lamenting the excess of celebration over Octavio Paz Centenary.

Poem stuck on wall lamenting the excess of celebration over Octavio Paz Centenary.

With Ana Franco of the Periódico de Poesía and novelist and interlocutor par excellence ,Jorge F. Hernández.

With Ana Franco of the Periódico de Poesía and novelist and interlocutor par excellence, Jorge F. Hernández.

 

Inglaterra? Really? A tragic misallocation of nationality or a simplification for the geographically challenged?.

Inglaterra? Really? A tragic misallocation of nationality or a simplification for the geographically challenged?.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dubious categories

19 Jan

In Agota Kristof’s wonderful novel The Third Lie, Claus – or is it Lucas, his anagrammatic twin (the two central characters are indissoluble, or aspects of one and the same person) – spends his nights writing in a notebook. One day, his landlady asks:

“What I want to know is whether you write things that are true or things that are made up.”

I answer that I try to write true stories but at a given point the story becomes unbearable because of its very truth, and then I have to change it. I tell her that I try to tell my story but all of a sudden I can’t – I don’t have the courage, it hurts too much. And so I embellish everything and describe things not as they happened but the way I wish they had happened.

After writing a book of creative nonfiction (I love the way a genre is defined by what it is not – as though ‘fiction’ were somehow the default mode of prose writing), one rather smug person of my acquaintance informed me that he had enjoyed the memoir, but had not been so taken by the fictional parts.

Were there fictional parts? I asked. Oh yes, this keen critic observed, of course there were.

Needless to say, this got me wondering. I could have retorted by quoting Joan Didion, who once wrote:

“Not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.”

Or I might have cited Gabriel García Márquez:

“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”

The point is, there is a fine distinction between the literalism of ‘what really happened’ – which is in any case not provable – and the way in which I happen to remember, conjecture and write. Does it simply boil down to a distinction between ‘true things’ and ‘things that are made up’? That seems horribly reductive. What about all the stuff that happens in between?

In the documentary film Patience, Christopher MacLehose tells an anecdote about the publication of Max Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. Sebald was required to state what category of work the book should be shelved under – a standard requirement made by booksellers, and he was dismayed that he had to choose a category: did he want the book filed under biography, history, apocalypse studies, memoir, travel or fiction? – All of them, he said, all of them.

 

 

 

 

 

Juan Rulfo and the terror of the blank page

4 Jan

 Juan Rulfo and accomplice

Juan Rulfo and accomplice.

This morning, after a restless night, I spent a couple of hours picking up books from the shelves around my room, almost at random, dipping into them, dropping them on the floor, where I will find them later and replace them, equally randomly, between new and often unsuitable neighbours. Sometimes I stop and write down a line or two in a notebook, then move on. When I look at the notebook some days from now, I will be curious to know what the point of all this is.

Following a recent discussion about writers who stop writing, and of writers who kill their darlings (see last post, 1 Jan), I start thinking about the Mexican writer and photographer Juan Rulfo, and return, in my grazing, to Pedro Páramo, a brilliant and perplexing short novel, which, on its appearance in 1955 made such a profound impression on the Hispanic literary world, from Borges to Asturias to García Márquez. (Readers of Spanish can find the latter’s account of his discovery of Rulfo’s book here).

I read Pedro Páramo some years ago and return to it now with curiosity, because my memory of it, I discover, is as vague and dreamlike as the book itself.

According to Susan Sontag, in her introduction to the English translation, by Margaret Sayers Peden:

Rulfo has said that he carried Pedro Páramo inside him for many years before he knew how to write it. Rather, he was writing hundreds of pages and then discarding them. He once called the novel an exercise in elimination.

“The practice of writing the short story disciplined me,” he said, “and made me see the need to disappear and to leave my characters the freedom to talk at will, which provoked, it would seem, a lack of structure. Yes, there is a structure in Pedro Páramo, but it is a structure made of silences, of hanging threads, of cut scenes, where everything occurs in a simultaneous time which is a no-time.”

Rulfo’s life, as well as his book, has become legendary. He left behind only around 300 pages of writing; but those pages, according to García Márquez, are as important to us as the 300 or so extant pages of Sophocles – an extraordinary claim, you might think. Rulfo published his books in early middle age (there is a collection of short stories, translated as The Burning Plain, and another short novel, Ell gallo de oro), but for the next 30 years he did not publish anything, although he had taken up photography in the 1940s and continued taking (and occasionally publishing) pictures throughout his life. He was an inveterate traveller, and drinker. He destroyed the long awaited second novel, La Cordillera, a few years before his death at the age of 68 in 1986. Since his death his widow has overseen the publication of his notebooks, and fragments from the unfinished novel, although, as she confesses in her introduction to the notebooks, Rulfo would not have approved, and that she felt she might be doing “something awful” in publishing them.

Juan Rulfo explained his long literary silence in an interview as follows: “Writing causes me to undergo tremendous anxiety. The empty white page is a terrible thing.”

 

 

 

 

 

‘Terra Nostra’ by Carlos Fuentes

17 May

Incredible the first animal that dreamed of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.

Carlos Fuentes, who died this week, wrote a great number of novels and stories, as well as some exceptionally fine essays. He was, along with Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier and Octavio Paz, representative of a generation of Latin American authors who took the world by storm in the 1960s and 70s.

My first and most lasting encounter with Fuentes took place when I was 22 years old and recovering from an accident, when I read the fabulous and hallucinatory Terra Nostra, the opening lines of which are reproduced above. In spite of the far greater success of his other novels, such as The Death of Artemio Cruz, Change of Skin and The Old Gringo (made into a movie with Gregory Peck), for me it is Terra Nostra, a sprawling, futuristic epic, concerned with the beginnings of Europe’s occupation of America, the phantom marriage of Elizabeth, Queen of England, with Phillip II of Spain, and dark investigations into medieval Paris, all tied up and shaken (as far as I can remember) with lashing of surrealist humour and a good deal of neo-baroque terror, that will summarize  Fuentes’ achievement.

Funnily enough, Andrés Neuman’s description of his own novel, Traveller of the Century, as ‘a futuristic novel that happens in the past’ comes to mind as an entirely appropriate description of Fuentes’ antecedent.

In his Introduction to the Dalkey Archive edition, Jorge Volpi writes: “Terra Nostra is not a simple novel. It is a malfunctioning time tunnel; the entrance to a labyrinth of mirrors; a hell – or a purgatory – in which all memories and echoes intermingle; the gigantic rotting place of history; a jig-saw puzzle put together incorrectly or Chinese boxes that become deeper every moment . . . the underwater tunnel that joins Europe and America; the black hole that connects past, present and future . . .”

I have Terra Nostra in front of me now, the 2003 edition, with an afterword by Milan Kundera. Nearly 800 pages of it, and the pages are big. I wonder if re-reading can ever re-capture the excitement and hunger of reading a great book the first time round? Maybe the pleasure of re-reading are entirely distinct from those of first-time discovery. Maybe I’ll just be disappointed. Maybe I’ll just peek inside, flick through the pages, see what leaps out . . .  perhaps this is a preferable way to revisit old favourite books and places.

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